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Struggling special-needs school dealt a double blow

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

New Frame

Reporter:Zandile Bangani

Photographer: Rogan Ward

The Golden Steps school in KwaZulu-Natal lost not only its computer room and kitchen, but also some of its children’s means to communicate and learn a skill that grants them independence.

Among the 137 schools damaged during the July riots in KwaZulu-Natal is the Golden Steps school for children with intellectual and physical impairments in Verulam, north of Durban. The school came into existence in 1979 but opened officially in 1982.

One of the crucial resources damaged was the computer room that gave certain learners a way to communicate. “The computer room is the voice of our non-verbal autistic learners,” says Anesh Singh, the school’s principal for the past 21 years. Technology gave them augmenting and alternative communication methods.

“Can you imagine someone pulling off your tongue and cutting off your tongue? You are voiceless for the rest of your life. They have robbed our children of a voice,” he says.

Pre-vocational learners also used the computer room to type their CVs and learn administrative skills.

Looters emptied the school kitchen of the fridge, stoves, food and cutlery. “The kitchen is a classroom. It is a place where our pre-vocational learners go in and acquire the basic skills in hospitality, from cooking to serving and waitering.” Looting has robbed children of learning hospitality skills, Singh says.

“This is a serious setback, as the sector is already under pressure to provide appropriate facilities for the schooling system,” said Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga.

Shoestring resources

The school has 217 learners and 20 educators. Singh says it offers skills that empower and capacitate children to be employable and “face the open labour market with confidence”. Golden Steps offers sewing, woodwork, metalwork, agricultural studies, hair and beauty, and hospitality classes.

“The classroom space has grown over the years because we have put in 11 new classrooms in the past six years,” he says.

The school provides transport along at least seven routes to pick up and drop off learners. There are four drivers and six buses. The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education pays the drivers’ salaries and the Department of Transport provides five of the buses, while the school governing body provides the remaining bus. “Transport is one big challenge,” Singh says.

Golden Steps is experiencing a shortage of support staff, including drivers and teacher’s aides, who assist educators by guiding and helping learners. “Everywhere the child is, the teacher’s aide is there.” However, the school has seven teacher’s aides to take care of 19 classrooms, says the principal. “I am expected to take one teacher aide and attach that aide to three classes.”

At one point, he says, the school had more teacher’s aides. But as they retire or exit the system, they are not replaced because of the moratorium on support staff. “We are now bearing the brunt. And I raised it with the [provincial education] department. We cannot place a moratorium on support staff if we are to deliver quality education to our children.”

Experienced, but short-staffed

Golden Steps qualifies for two state-funded security guards, but has had to hire a private security company as one guard retired and is yet to be replaced, and the school uses the other as a bus driver, says Singh. This has improved the arrival time of learners, even though he is still considered as security by the state. “At least children are getting to school slightly early. They are not coming to school at 10am but at about 8.30am.”

Epileptic children who have seizures at school sometimes have accidents and it is the responsibility of the teacher’s aides to clean them, he says. “When they mess the toilets, it needs to be cleaned.” But the school only has one cleaner. “How do you manage that?”

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